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Knowing Your Neighbors: Reflections on How to Build Diverse Small Business Communities

During my time in Burlington, Vermont this summer I learned how to be uncomfortable. As a white, American-born woman pursuing a college degree, Vermont wasn’t exactly a place I expected to feel in the minority. Due to my preconceived notions and stereotypes of a majority white, affluent, and progressive population inhabiting Burlington, I was expecting to primarily ‘feel the Bern’ and visit the Ben & Jerry’s Factory. While I did embark on each of those typical Vermont experiences and enjoyed them immensely, I also engaged with a diverse community of Vermonters who embodied the wider Burlington identity.

“While living on the $14 a day stipend, my roommates and I became creative in planning meals and resourceful in attending free and low-cost events in town,” says Lockhart-Neff, pictured here with her 2017 Burlington Cohort.

I worked in the heart of Burlington, on the edge of Lake Champlain, at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) as an economic development research intern.  As a community action agency, CVOEO’s mission is to bridge gaps and build futures. Its diverse, active, and creative team of change makers provides individuals and families with basic needs and support in times of crisis and helps them acquire the necessary education, financial skills, and assets to build stable futures in which to thrive. I did not work directly with clients and crisis management but focused on research to help find the best way to meet the needs of CVOEO clients. I specifically worked with immigrant small business owners located on North Street, a 20 minute walk to the North End of town from my organization. I gained a deep understanding, both structurally and individually, of the historical economic development of the North street business community from business owners, educators, city council members, and residents. I engaged with more than 15 Burlington community members through informational interviews, five of which were with immigrant small business owners. My goal was to learn about the barriers to starting a business on North Street, the network and sense of community each business owner felt, and their future goals for the business and definitions of success. I consolidated and organized the feedback I received from each community member to create a final report detailing my recommendations for CVOEO. It used these recommendations to continue building relationships with the community and focus resources and attention on small business development. Finally, I presented my findings to CVOEO and the individuals from whom I learned to help create a foundational network and conversation to build upon following my internship for myself and the North Street Business Network.

“I learned the importance of challenging my own notion of normal in order to better include and adapt to the evolving American identity,” writes Lockhart-Neff who interned at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

As a summer intern with limited funds, walking shoes, and an unwavering appetite, I experienced Burlington on foot and through food. I spent about half my time during the workday researching in the office, and the other half fostering relationships with community members and business owners on North Street, majority food focused. North Street business owners are uniquely diverse. For example, I spoke with entrepreneurs such as the owners of a Nepalese Dumpling house, an Employment Agency, a Japanese sushi restaurant, and an African Market. These interviews profoundly impacted my summer experience as an intern and student. Walking up and down the several-block stretch, I observed, learned, and appreciated the personality and wisdom expressed by many of the business owners. At first, anxiety ridden and unsure what to expect, I simply walked into stores to ask for participation in my research. I did not know how to best convey the message of my project. I thought I had nothing to offer the business owners in exchange for their time. Over several weeks, I learned to embrace the uncertainty I felt. I had to operate without knowledge of the language or background of some of the individuals with whom I was meeting. As I devoted more time to each owner and created a stronger network, I was able to communicate better and to understand the struggles, goals, and motivations of each business owner and Burlington resident.

After gaining trust and establishing my purpose, I reflected on the diverse perspectives to which I had been exposed and found similarities among the entrepreneurs’ struggles and successes. I began to understand the mindset and work ethic of Sabrata, the owner of the Nepali Dumpling House, who stated: “Comparing my first life up to here, every step I am progressing. We have to learn everything by ourselves, step by step; life will never go (as) planned, and also it will not be smooth.” I was able to understand the occasional frustrations of being located on North Street. Simply put by Mao, a co-owner of Shinjuku Station, the Japanese Sushi restaurant, : “I want more people to come in, I’m really proud of my food.” I learned of the motivation of Bhuwan from the Burlington Employment Agency, who said his purpose was: “To give people that confidence, that help, that you are worth what you are doing, you can do better and we will help you do better.” These insights enabled me to advocate and brainstorm ways to empower North Street small business owners through their collaboration and ingenuity.

Generally speaking, I found several common themes in the feedback I received from the North Street community. Common goals included: engage in idea sharing and mentorship, addressing limited access to parking, increase foot traffic, rebrand safety and accessibility, increase social media presence, groups’ brand building, and create platforms to share culture, food, language, and experience with the greater Burlington community. For example, one solution that addresses several of the development goals is to engage in a North Street food tour. This will enable and empower the North Street small business owners to collaborate for a group branding event that benefits their business and the greater Burlington population by encouraging accessibility, education, and communication. I found that local and historically informed solutions allowed for holistic community empowerment. After this internship, I am motivated to continue this advocacy and have ideally set up a trajectory for the Burlington community to do the same.

Another way in which I have learned about empowerment and advocacy is through reflecting on the title of my report and categorization of my research focused on the “New American” population.  After more questioning and research, I asked the business owners for feedback, and I now utilize the way immigrants identify themselves. The term ‘New American’ is typically used for an immigrant or refugee who has been in the U.S. for a period of up to one year. After this period, the term can be offensive due to its ‘othering’ nature and encouragement of stereotypes. As explained by another small business owner, Chandra, of the Burlington Employment Agency, immigrants, especially refugees, don’t have a home anymore. They call America home and rightfully declare their identity as such. Therefore, I changed the title of my report to identify the business population as ‘Immigrant owned small businesses.’ My experience enabled me to understand the importance of identity, nationality, and migration.

During my time in Burlington I began to realize my own privileges in occupying spaces in which I am often a part of the majority race, class, and nationality. In Burlington, I had the privilege to learn about perspectives different from my own. I had an opportunity to deconstruct why I felt uncomfortable at first among an immigrant population and to understand how I can better advocate for others in the future.

Lastly, I learned about another facet of community: empathy. While living on the $14 a day stipend, my roommates and I became creative in planning meals and resourceful in attending free and low-cost events in town. Our network of supervisors, coworkers, and peers also empowered us with local recommendations, welcoming invitations, and the occasional leftover pasta salad for lunch. I learned the importance of creating and strengthening a network as well as becoming a resource to those in my immediate and local community. While living with my two roommates, Beka and Tessa, I also learned from their experiences at The Vermont Community Garden and Vermont Legal Aid through finding common connections in Burlington. Consequently, I learned the importance of challenging my own notion of normal in order to better include and adapt to the evolving American identity. I found that if you truly know your neighbors, you can engage more holistically and inclusively in community development so that families can continually regenerate locally and globally.


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